America’s racial divide not only remains but has deepened in some ways over the last six years, despite hopes President Obama’s election would usher in a “post-racial” America.
The shooting of an unarmed black man and resulting rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, is only the latest racial flashpoint in Obama’s tenure, which has featured tense, racially-charged debates over issues like the arrest of a black Harvard professor and Obama friend in front of his house and the resulting “beer summit,” the expansion of voter ID laws, and the killing of Trayvon Martin.
“We’re nowhere near a post-racial society,” says Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown sociology professor who has written several books on race in America.
Blacks and whites still see a number of issues in dramatically different ways, most notably in policing. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center not only showed a vast gulf between black and white perceptions of the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown and its aftermath, but even that blacks were paying much more attention to the news in Ferguson than whites.
Huge disparities remain between whites and blacks, who tend to earn less money, graduate from college at lower rates and are more likely to be unemployed. Politics too remains a major divide, as the president, like past Democratic candidates, won more than 90 percent of the black vote and less than 40 percent of support among whites in 2012. Only two of the 100 members of the U.S. Senate are black and only one of the nation’s 50 governors.
“We did a survey in 2009 that showed increased optimism among blacks about race relations. There was a sense that things were improving,” said Carroll Doherty, Pew’s director of political research. “That has kind of receded over time. African-Americans are still supportive of Obama, but the sense of black progress that you saw early in Obama’s term has leveled off if not receded.”
The racial dynamics of America are, of course, much more complicated than a generation ago. The nation’s 54 million Latinos, while not as large a force in voting, actually outnumber its 42 million blacks. There is a growing population of Asian-Americans and bi-racial Americans.
Whites are only 63 percent of the country’s residents, compared to 80 percent in 1980.
And America has changed in the last generation markedly, going from a country that created huge barriers to prevent African-Americans from voting to one where a higher percentage of blacks voted than whites in 2012.
“To dismiss the magnitude of this progress, to suggest, as some sometimes do, that little has changed -- that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years,” Obama said in a speech last year at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
But Ferguson has suggested that the black-white divide in particular endures in some communities.
“Not really surprised by differing perceptions of Ferguson. It is an extension of how both groups see law enforcement. Because many black citizens have witnessed interactions like the one Mike Brown had with police officers, they are simply more suspicious, and rightfully, than their white counterparts,” said Mark Anthony Neal, a Duke university professor of African and African-American Studies.
Obama of course never claimed he would heal America’s racial divide, and it would be impossible to expect one person to do so. He has acknowledged the inspiring speech he gave in 2004 about bringing people of all races into unity has not become a reality during his tenure.
“My speech in Boston was an aspirational speech,” he told The New Yorker earlier this year. “It was not a description of our politics. It was a description of what I saw in the American people.”
“There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black president,” he added. “Now, the flip side of it is there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black president.”
Obama has tried to be a unifying figure in terms of race. He annoyed some of his black supporters when he told Black Enterprise in 2012, “I'm not the president of black America. I'm the president of the United States of America,” when he was asked about the plight of black businesses during his administration. He often suggests, as he did to The New Yorker, his race both has benefits and costs.
At the same time, Obama has tried to address some specific challenges blacks face. For example, his administration has urged schools to stop expelling or suspending students who misbehave, as African-American boys are those most likely to be removed from the classroom. That initiative is part of “My Brother’s Keeper,” a comprehensive program Obama has started that is designed to combine both private and government resources to focus on problems that specifically affect young black and Hispanic boys.
And Obama’s administration has been notable for its diversity, placing the first black heads in departments like Justice and Homeland Security.
Obama has “put into motion a set of criminal justice reforms that will have their greatest effect on communities of color and most notably the African-American community,” Wade Henderson, president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said in an interview earlier this year. “I consider that a major, major step forward.”
But black leaders and intellectuals are increasingly questioning if Obama’s approach is effective.
“My Brother's Keeper is lacking because it leaves out women and girls of color. It's not racial justice if it leaves out half the race,” said Paul Butler, a Georgetown law professor who specializes in civil rights issues. He added, “And MBK is too focused on fixing black men, but Ferguson demonstrates it's the keepers, like the police, who need fixing, not black men.”
Questions about race in America are much deeper than what happens in Washington or to elites like the president. The rise of figures like Obama in politics and even entertainers like Oprah Winfrey suggest a level of progress that has not reached other African-Americans.
The Urban Institute, a non-partisan think tank, estimates that the recession exacerbated a huge wealth gap that already existed. From 2004 to 2010, whites lost 1 percent of their wealth, while blacks lost 23 percent and Hispanics lost 25 percent, according to the institute. The average white family has about six times the wealth of the average black or Hispanic one.
The black poverty rate is about 25 percent, compared to 11 percent for whites.
With the racial divide still so obvious, key figures in both parties are increasingly looking beyond Obama and acknowledging race in frank ways that the president often avoids.
In the wake of the Ferguson shooting, both Hillary Clinton and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican likely to run for president, suggested blacks were right to be skeptical of the American policing system.
“We cannot ignore the inequities that persist in our justice system, inequities that undermine our most deeply held values of fairness and equality, “ Clinton said in a speech last week.
She added, “Imagine what we would feel and what we would do if white drivers were three times as likely to be searched by police during a traffic stop as black drivers instead of the other way around, if white offenders received prison sentences 10 percent longer than black offenders for the same crimes, if a third of all white men -- just look at this room and take one third -- went to prison during their lifetime. Imagine that. That is the reality in the lives of so many of our fellow Americans and so many of the communities in which they live.”
A group of civil rights leaders and other progressives are now circulating a petition urging the Obama administration to create a “police czar” who would monitor local law enforcement agencies across the country.
“It’s about time we start addressing the underlying issues of race and racism that continue to exist between and among black and white America,” said Michael Steele, former head of the Republican National Committee.
Others say it may be time to retire the term and aspiration of a “post-racial” society. The goal should not be that race is ignored, but that racial discrimination is eliminated and diversity is prized.
“That shouldn’t even be our aim, said Dyson, referring to the post-racial notion. “We should try instead for a post-racist society, where equality and justice are at the center of our concern.”